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close this bookWomen Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World (UNU, 1995, 356 p.)
close this folder1. Beyond the politics of difference
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentWho are the women of the third world?
View the documentAccounting for women's position in information technology
View the documentIT and the world of work: Manufacturing and services sectors
View the documentDisembodied technology: Software and data entry work
View the documentPostmodernism: A shift from collective to individual
View the documentEcofeminism and the politics of identity in the developing world
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

Accounting for women's position in information technology

It is precisely in the context of women's autonomy and choice in poorer countries and in less affluent communities that it is now pertinent to focus on the impact of information technology on employment opportunities. In doing so, it is important to bear in mind the distinctive features of the current revolution in the mode of production, which is primarily knowledge-intensive. IT comprises a set of technologies that actively process information rather than merely storing or transmitting it. Computers, the key hardware, and non-material software systems form its essential core.

The convergence of computing, telecommunication and satellite technology in recent years alters the structure of work not only in the economies that are at the centre of Research and Development in this field, but also in countries that primarily adapt and adopt these technologies for market orientation. Even in nations which are in economic terms relatively poor, IT substantially changes the traditional production process as well as the marketable goods and services produced. The demand for components of IT-related hardware - such as microchips or for information-processing activities - such as data entry or software programming - creates new areas for employment in developing countries. In addition, the telecommunication revolution, which allows companies to shift parts of their manufacturing and service production to geographically distant locations, makes it possible for low-wage countries to receive some amount of labour-intensive relocated work from the first world countries. The evolving international division of labour now encompasses a vast range: from the production of semiconductors or telecommunications equipment to service-related software programming and data entry.

In this scenario, it has not been easy to ascertain whether women, in aggregate terms, have benefited from the information revolution or lost out. In some spheres, women, especially older women, are now threatened with imminent technological redundancies, especially in manufacturing. The skills needed for traditional labour-intensive assembly-line work have given way to new requirements for polyvalent, cognitive skills. The spread of information processing work, especially in banking, finance or telecommunication, by contrast, has opened up new opportunities for women who are computer-literate and young enough to learn newer skills. In the sphere of self-employment, information technology, as the contributions in the volume show, heralds new possibilities for women and men; yet women, more than men, fail to achieve their potential because of their lack of access to business and marketing skills.

Against this background of contradictory trends, it is futile to formulate a generalized strategy for giving women access to education and training. The opportunities and barriers that women face in gaining appropriate skills depend too much on the historical specificity of the situation and on their class backgrounds for this to be possible. As it is important to have a clear vision of the commonality and differences in the interests of different groups of women, it is equally strategic to move beyond an ahistoric, and thus simplistic notion of an unchanging women's response to technology. The empirical work in the anthology, in order to avoid such an approach, is deliberately presented in a historical perspective: of women's entry into and exit from the invention, application and management of technology in different periods.

By charting the contributions of women who have been obliterated from history, Sheila Rowbotham argues in her paper that:

Rather than viewing history in terms of an undifferentiated structure of patriarchy, it is possible to see women emerging intellectually in some periods and forced into retreat in others . . . examination(s) of both the barriers which have prevented women from gaining access and the circumstances which have made it possible for women to . . . contribute to technology . . . have a significant and direct relevance to the contemporary position of women.

Indeed, it is not that women did not play any role in the development of information technology. But their contributions have been forgotten or obliterated from history because women, as a group, have remained invisible in the public domain of commercial decisions and vocational training. The marginalization of Rosalind Franklin's role in the discovery of DNA, the key concept of biotechnology, highlights the difficulty even extremely privileged women face in gaining recognition, even in recent times (Rose, 1994: 150-153). The picture that emerges out of the papers in this anthology is clear. Women's role in the formulation and construction of technology is best understood not in terms of their essential differences from men but in terms of material conditions that include them in the market and institutions, or preclude them from these. As I claim in my own paper in this anthology:

The technological innovations become commercially successful if and when the creator of the innovation could make use of political, economic and legal networks. Thus the dominant group in a society determines the shape and direction of a society's techno-economic order - and the image of an inventor has almost always been male.